Ravaged by poverty and rising political unrest, Haiti is facing another looming crisis as aid agencies struggle to feed the nation's malnourished with half the food they were expecting, the World Food Program (WFP) said.
The UN agency, with the help of Oxfam and Caritas, is trying to deliver emergency aid to northern villages where nearly 25,000 people have been left without food due to recent floods. To feed the neediest, food is being borrowed from school feeding programs.
"These people are barely surviving," said Guy Gauvreau, the World Food Program's officer in Haiti, on Tuesday. "This is a silent crisis but unfortunately donor countries have not made Haiti a priority," he said.
Unlike Afghanistan, which asked for US$100 million in donations and received it, Haiti's WFP office asked for US$10 million and received less than half of that amount. Other nations, such as Iraq and Mozambique, have also received steady help while Haiti has been largely ignored, Gauvreau said.
The crisis can be seen on the faces of barefooted children running across the sewage-clogged ditches of the Fort Saint Michel slum, outside Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second largest city. Pale with orange-tinted hair -- telltale signs of malnutrition -- many go days without eating.
"Sometimes I go for a couple days without eating," said Madeline Joseph, 22, holding her sickly 8-month-old son, Youvens Jean.
"I try to feed him when I can but it's never enough and he's always sick. I can't take this anymore," she said.
Floods wiped away the maize and cassava harvest in much of the north coast last month, stealing the little income men earned as farmers.
The rains took food off the tables of the poor, and in some areas more than 40 percent of people lack food, Gauvreau said.
The crisis comes as deepening poverty and unrest have push Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, to its breaking point.
Since mid-September, anti-government protests have surged, leaving at least 42 people dead and littering roads with barricades that hinder food shipments.
"There are demonstrations now every day," said Nelta Jean-Louis, a WFP field worker.
"Sometimes it's too dangerous for us to distribute food when there are burning tire barricades blocking the streets, but the people need this food," she said.
Tensions have been rising since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's party swept flawed 2000 legislative elections.
Cash-strapped and facing growing dissent, the government has been unable to help the very people it promised to help. Once a priest in the slums, Aristide rose to power largely on promises to improve life for the poor.
"So far, we've gotten nothing from the government," Jean-Louis said.
"We need help from the outside because the government is unable to meet its responsibilities," she said.
Although tensions have increased, politics has escaped the hungriest.
"I can't read. I can't write. All I care about is figuring out how I will feed my children," said Charite Jevousaime, 52, who is waiting for the aid agencies to help feed her 13 children.
"I do the best I can but sometimes the children don't eat," she said.
Haiti's hunger has been made worse by ecological destruction. The country is nearly 90 percent deforested, causing erosion, depleting topsoil and destroying farmland. To make charcoal, people have recently started cutting down fruit-bearing trees. Haiti used to produce rice. Now most rice has to be imported.
Most of Haiti's 8 million people are jobless or without regular work and live on less than US$1 day.
The WFP is helping needy families by providing one-month rations of 50kg of rice, 10kg of pulses and five liters of vegetable oil.
Oxfam is helping coordinate relief and is starting a flood recovery project with US$350,000 from the EU, said William Gustave, an organization official. Caritas, through the Cap-Haitien Catholic Diocese, is providing food to help.
But aid officials said food borrowed from school programs will have to be paid back.
"People need to know that Haiti is at a crisis point and the lack of international assistance is making it worse," Gauvreau said.
"We need help urgently," he said.